Since the first internet-fueled boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term “startup” has been popular for describing rapidly growing small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), especially – but not exclusively – in the tech sector. Some of the most famous technology companies today, including Facebook and Dropbox, were once startups. They had very small operations, with only a few actual employees, and were reliant on venture capital funding because they did not bring in revenue right away.
While there is no strict and widely accepted definition for “startup,” the word usually describes an organization that is:
• Small, in terms of both headcount and revenue.
• Closely controlled by its founders and early employees.
• Designed for quick growth, even at the expense of stability.
Why public relations is a challenge for many startups
The unique characteristics of startups also mean that they have special requirements in managing their public relations. Their limited resources and relatively poor name recognition can cause difficulties in gaining media attention early on.
Another common obstacle is not having a consistent story to tell yet. Consider that Groupon – now synonymous with discounted daily deals – was originally a fundraising network for community projects, while Twitter originated as a podcasting network. Even a well-designed PR strategy could quickly become irrelevant for a startup that “pivots” from one business model to another through a process of trial and error.
A startup doesn’t have to be a tech darling in the making, like Groupon or Twitter, to struggle with these challenges. Day-to-day tasks such as responding to media inquiries, managing email lists and overseeing social network posts can become burdens for SMBs that have time-strapped employees juggling multiple projects. In some cases, interns may have to shoulder these key responsibilities.
What does a basic effective startup PR strategy entail?
Given their sizes and resources, most startups cannot emulate the PR strategies of more established firms such as Apple and Google. Such approaches (i.e., ones focused on shaping perceptions of well-known brands) would likely not be useful, anyway, since startups are usually blank slates to the public. A startup will more likely benefit from focusing its PR efforts on other more fine-grained tasks, such as:
• Establishing a place for the company among potential competitors.
• Raising awareness of specific products, services and projects.
• Creating a company story that will attract workers and investors.
• Connecting with influential publications, event organizers and media contacts.
• Refining a consistent organizational voice across multiple channels.
As central early-stage PR functions, all of these activities are important to the long-term success of any organization. But startups have to budget smartly, meaning that they might not always have sufficient funds for seeking outside help or even building out a full-time PR team in-house.
In-house versus agency model: Which one is better for today’s startups?
In differentiating between essential and unnecessary expenses for startups, the financial software vendor Intuit once listed “outsourcing” as one of the essential costs, since it helps save money on staffing while maintaining acceptable quality of work. Still, a key unresolved question for startups is whether to look externally or internally for PR help in particular.
Arguments for the agency PR route
Hiring an outside PR firm might not seem like much of a bargain upfront. It might instead feel like an exorbitant expense. But over time, a good relationship with a PR agency could turn into a powerful cost-saver and reputation builder.
A startup that hires an agency gets access to the experience and expertise of PR professionals who have worked with multiple clients. As a result, the entire organization is well-prepared for managing crises that might otherwise consume considerable time and money. Plus, the PR agency will have skills in content development and media access.
Relying on a PR agency also frees up a startup’s leadership to focus on other projects, such as revenue-generating initiatives and business partnerships, that will make or break the organization. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that within four years of formation, between 40 and 50 percent of businesses fail (failure rates vary considerably by industry). Every minute not spent on improving cash flow and company infrastructure could contribute to a startup’s eventual demise.
Under an external PR model, an agency gets to oversee and continually refine PR strategy. Meanwhile, the startup itself gets to spend more time on planting its roots in its industry.
Arguments for the in-house PR route
It may be premature for a startup to hire a PR firm before its operations are fully off the ground. There is also the issue of cost: If a competent marketing manager or executive, working with a small internal team, can take on the basic responsibilities of a PR firm, the company can avoid the expense of setting up a contract.
Any cost-analysis of agency versus in-house PR for startups must account for the expenses of hiring employees with PR experience (if in-house) or interacting with the PR firm (if agency). Just because a PR contract was signed does not mean that a startup does not have to worry about public relations anymore. On the contrary, someone in the organization will need to provide the buy-in for making the PR relationship work.
The back-and-forth with the PR firm is time-consuming and may become a bigger resource drain than simply handling PR internally. A Focus infographic listed public relations as one of five items that startups spent too much time and money on, describing it as “encouraged, but not in the beginning.” Spending too much on ineffective marketing was also cited as a cause of failure by 30 percent of startups, according to the graphic.
Under ideal conditions, handling PR with an in-house team is both cost-effective and conducive to the development of a distinctive positive company image. Startups that shape their own PR strategies get to take control of their messaging and build crucial skills in interacting with the press and the public. Execution is everything, though. Without proper PR management, the in-house route might not yield any benefits over the agency option.
Tips for setting a startup PR strategy in motion
There is no right answer to the “agency or in-house?” question we raised earlier; everything depends on the specific requirements and characteristics of each startup. Regardless of the selected route, there are some steps most startups can take to get their PR strategies rolling:
1. Find, research and interact with journalists in the relevant fields
Pitching every single media outlet is impractical and inefficient. A better approach is for startups to identify journalists who currently write on related topics.
A combination of Google News searches and Twitter research is a good recipe for tracking down writers likely to be receptive to pitches from startups. Many of them already post their email address on their social media profiles and have opened up their direct messages on Twitter and Facebook.
2. Create content assets other than standard PR pitches and press releases
The minimal brand recognition of startups can make it hard for them to stand out from the crowd of other companies vying for attention. Reporters get a lot of pitches. One of them revealed that she received 116 emailed pitches per week, almost all of which she ignored.
Instead of crafting one-size-fits-all pitches that are heavy on self-promotion, startups are often better off creating personalized ones that give reporters flexibility in how they incorporate them into coverage. Another useful option is to produce concise, attention-grabbing assets such as infographics that tell a quick story about the company. These pieces of content can complement other reporter-accessible resources such as white papers, videos and blog posts published on the company site or around the web.
3. Use statistics to put the startup’s business success in context
Startups are about growth. Stories about them often take angles about how these companies are “disrupting” a given industry thanks to their rapid successes in acquiring users.
In building effective PR operations, startups should think about how they can quantify their current trajectories for both the media and the public. Answers to questions like how much money was raised (or revenue brought in), how many people signed up with a month or year and how many partners are already on board can go a long way in creating a compelling narrative that will raise awareness.
Start thinking about a better PR strategy today
The complex relationship between startups and their use of PR services demonstrates how PR specialists need flexible skills, capable of being applied in an agency or in-house setting. An advanced degree in PR, such as a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations from the George Washington University, will put you on track to recognize and respond to the biggest challenges in modern PR, for organizations of all sizes.
You will gain develop great expertise and experience in understanding industry trends, leveraging social media and much more. Learn more on the program overview page.
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